Louisiana fishermen pray their livelihood will return, hoteliers in Alabama wait for the phones to ring and New Orleans’ finest chefs cook up public relations strategies rather than po’-boys.
Meanwhile, Florida fears that the Gulf gusher has damaged the economy — from the Panhandle, where oil blotches are intermittent for 100 miles, through all the still-pristine beaches down to Key West.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill has delivered two blows to the Gulf Coast: the actual presence of oil, and the perception that oil is everywhere. From Louisiana’s oil-polluted marshes to Florida’s sugary-white sands, each region must restore its battered image.
“The damage, it has been done,” said Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau in Alabama. “This is both real damage and damage caused by perception. But we’re not soaking and dripping in oil.”
The nearer the oil, the more ecological damage, the more failing businesses and the more jobs lost. Towns hit hardest are those that, just five years ago, were decimated by Hurricane Katrina. The spill has dealt the fishing industry a devastating blow, oiling more than 600 miles of Gulf shoreline. And the economic damage to the tourism industry — where perception is everything — is projected at $22.7 billion over the next three years.
“If you’re a traveler sitting in Chicago spending the day watching CNN, frankly your impression might be that oil has covered the entire Gulf Coast,” said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president for the U.S. Travel Association. “I don’t think any community can think it won’t be treated differently by travelers because oil has or hasn’t washed ashore. They’re watching the news, but the complexity of the situation is not understood.”
A SAD VISIT
Kristie Taylor was one of those tourists.
She knew her vacation this year to Gulf Shores, Ala., would be different. The Tuscaloosa woman spent many childhood summers at the same beach her parents had their honeymoon. Although she dreaded the oil pollution, she couldn’t stand the thought of skipping a summer there.
Still, she was overcome with sadness when she first stepped onto the beach and saw “puddles and pods” of oil.
“I felt like I was at a funeral,” said Taylor, 32. Those in the tourism industry are in full-fledged crisis mode. And transparency is the only path they see to reassure travelers.
The Bradenton-Sarasota area can brag in marketing campaigns that its Florida beaches are clean and open for business. But in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., if there’s oil on the beach, well, then there’s oil on the beach — and the local convention and visitors’ bureau reports that on its website via a two-minute video shoot.
“We decided very early on that our philosophy and our position was, `We are going to tell people what’s going on here regardless,’ ” Foster said.
“Because the greatest thing we have to lose is not a one-night stay or a one-week stay. The greatest thing we stand to lose is credibility.”
IN THE CLEAR
Florida tourism officials are grateful that — with the exception of some pockets in the Panhandle — the coast is clear.
Still, Chris Thompson, chief executive officer of Visit Florida, has serious concerns about the financial dent Florida might endure if tourism drops off. A June survey revealed some travelers feel uneasy about vacationing in the Sunshine State because of the spill.
The survey by YPartnership of 1,300 leisure travelers’ impressions of Florida showed 10 percent were less likely to travel to the state as a result of the oil spill. It’s a small percentage from a small sample of travelers, Thompson acknowledges, but he wonders how many tourists have that same impression.
“Ten percent against a $60 billion tourism economy — that’s a pretty big number,” Thompson said. “That would be on top of any kind of deficits the state has had to deal with from two years of economic downturn.”
For some, business still booms.
In Cortez, 40 miles south of Tampa, hotels and charter boat businesses are reporting a sudden wave of tourists who usually vacation farther north, but want to avoid oil pollution in their traditional spots.
Capt. Kim Ibasfalean, owner of a charter boat business in Cortez, said her bookings are up over last year, and some of the local hotels are up as much as 30 percent.
But no one is celebrating yet.
Those who fish for a living are watching the weather and the waves closely, hoping for the best.
Kim’s husband, Mark Ibasfalean, operates a fishing business that is just beginning to show losses, even though not a single drop of oil has touched the area’s wide beaches.
What he fears most is the uncertainty of what will happen to all that oil in the Gulf.
“Nobody knows what that will do,” Ibasfalean said. “You’ve got to be optimistic. The bottom line is yes, there’s tourists coming here because they’re not going to the Panhandle. That’s what’s happening for the moment.